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Why Are We Exploring Mars?
Illustration of NASA's Perseverance rover landing safely on Mars, Feb. 18, 2021. (Xinhua/NASA/JPL-Caltech via Getty Images)

Why Are We Exploring Mars?

Al-Watan, Kuwait, February 19

With each trip to Mars, one cannot help but ask: What are we getting from these missions that cost humanity billions of dollars per trip? What is the use? Are these just a nation’s way of flexing its scientific muscles? Or is there actual merit for humanity in these endeavors? This question was raised by National Geographic magazine several years ago and was also a prominent discussion topic in several scientific forums. The overwhelming consensus of this debate is that these missions provide direct scientific benefit to mankind, which has been slowly depleting, degrading, and destroying the resources available on Earth. By exploring places like Mars, we are able to learn not only about other planets but also about our own. Understanding life in space allows us to understand our own past and future. Preliminary evidence already suggests that Mars was once completely capable of hosting living organisms and may still be an incubator for microbial life today. Mars is more than half the size of Earth, with only 38% of the Earth’s gravity. It takes Mars a longer time than the Earth to complete a full rotation around the sun but it rotates around its axis almost at the same speed, which is why one year on Mars lasts 687 days but the day on Mars is only 40 minutes longer than that on Earth. Despite the small size of Mars, the area of land on the planet is roughly equivalent to the surface area of the Earth’s continents, which means, at least in theory, that Mars has the same amount of territory. Unfortunately, the planet is now wrapped in a thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide and cannot support terrestrial life forms, as methane appears periodically in the atmosphere of this dry planet and the soil contains compounds that would be toxic to life as we know it. Despite the presence of water on Mars, it is locked in the planet’s ice caps and buried under its surface. From its blood-like color to its ability to sustain life, Mars has piqued humankind’s interest for thousands of years, and when scientists examine the surface of Mars, they see features that are undoubtedly the work of ancient flowing fluids: branching streams, river valleys, basins, and deltas. At some point during the evolution of Mars, the planet underwent a radical transformation, and the world that was once like Earth became dry and dusty. The question now is what happened? Where did those fluids go and what happened to the Martian atmosphere? These explorations of Mars help scientists identify massive shifts in the climate that could fundamentally alter our own planet, and it also allows us to search for vital fingerprints, which are signs that may reveal whether there was life in the planet’s past and whether it still exists on Mars today. The more we know about Mars, the better equipped we will be to try to make life possible there, someday in the future. The only way to understand our own living conditions is to explore how living conditions on other planets with similar characteristics to ours have changed over time. –Khaled Montaser (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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